Grand Theft Auto: A retrospective – Part 1: The 2D Era

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Crime doesn’t pay. At least, that’s what anybody in any sort of position of societal authority will tell you. It certainly paid for a little Scottish studio by the name of DMA Design. Founded in the 80’s by David Jones, the studio found its first big break with Lemmings, published by Psygnosis. It was a different game that would set DMA Design on its course to become a veritable development Rockstar.

GTA (3)

That game was Grand Theft Auto, a top-down open world crime simulator that would eventually become one of the biggest names in all of video games. Originally developed for the aging Amiga in 1996, the game was released on Pc in 1997, finding its way to Sony’s PlayStation One soon thereafter. It immediately became one of the most controversial games of its age. It may not have been technically impressive, but it made up for its top-down, 2-dimensional perspective and crude sprites with its scope and sense of freedom. It also allowed you to be a bad guy.

GTA (4)

Though it looks nothing like the games the series is now known for, all of the core ingredients that define the series are present in the very first game. Like just about every game since, Grand Theft Auto put you in the shoes of a small-time thief with larger-than-life ambitions. With three cities to be a degenerate scumbag in and over 200 mostly vehicle-based missions, GTA gave players the tools and the freedom to stray from the linear mission structure. When you were doing missions, they’d be fun, previously unheard of things to do like assassinate rival criminals or act as a getaway driver. Completing missions earned money, and earning enough money – $1,000,000 – moved you on to the next city, from Liberty City, on To San Andreas, and finally, Vice City.

GTA (5)

It’s a game that required you to learn its city if you expected any measurable success; short cuts to avoid the cops, which narrow side-streets to take to get away, where to find the best weapons, and where to find the fastest cars. It’s all delightfully, irresistibly immoral. Naturally, a game – even though rated for adults – of this ilk would court controversy, which GTA most certainly did. Despite the mature rating there were protests in the US, UK and Australia, while Brazil just outright banned the game, imposing harsh fines on any who attempted to sell it. In the UK at least, much of the controversy was cleverly manufactured, with publicist Max Clifford taking every underhanded opportunity to drum up public ire.

If you’re interested, the first GTA is now abandonware, and is freely available. You can download it here.

GTA London 1969 (4)

GTA was one of the top selling PlayStation games in its year of release. It spawned two expansion, this time set in a real world city. GTA: London 1969 and the later, PC-exclusive GTA London 1961 maintained the same gameplay, throwing in more missions, more cars and more weapons, adding in a delightful bit of cockney rhyming slang and other, rather English eccentricities. It was really just window dressing more than any sort of real sequel.

GTA 2 (2)

An actual sequel happened in 1999, with the release of Grand Theft Auto 2. Set now in a city that wasn’t really based on anywhere, in an indeterminate time. It was more of an iterative sequel, adding in small changes to the gameplay and the world it was all set in. The biggest change here was that you could interact and do missions for seven different gangs; Yakuza, Hare Krishnas, Russian Mafia, Rednecks, and other. GTA 2 also introduced the side missions that would carry through to the newer games: Stuff like being a taxi driver or bus driver. The game was met with mixed critical reaction, but was a commercial success. It was hardly a revolution.

That would happen with the third numbered game….

Last Updated: April 9, 2015

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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